Sometimes you are born for a life of adventure and sometimes adventure recruits you into its cause. For George Lucas, the latter approach is preferable as witnessed in Luke Skywalker in Star Wars and Willow Ufgood in Willow. While Skywalker unknowingly had it in his blood, Willow was far more the ordinary person thrust into an extraordinary cause.
Lucas conceived of Willow’s tale back in 1972 and kept it rattling around his mind until technology was sophisticated enough to tackle it on film. Casting Warwick Davis as Wicket in Return of the Jedi probably began the move from backburner to the front of the production slate even though it was another five years before the film began production. By then, Lucas was no longer interested in directing, instead choosing Ron Howard to mount his first major fantasy. By then, Howard, who was a directing contemporary of Lucas although they traveled in different circles, had just finished Cocoon, a science fiction tale dosed with lots of humanity, and that’s apparently what Lucas wanted.
What we got in 1988, though, was an uneven tale with loads of nice scenery and nifty Industrial Light & Magic special effects but none of the characters sang and Howard definitely seemed out of his element. A new edition, with an excellent transfer, has just been released on Blu-ray by 20th Century Home Entertainment.
The story is not especially original as Queen Bavmorda (Jean Marsh) of Nockmaar wants no rivals and to forestall a prophecy, has every pregnant woman in the kingdom imprisoned. Of course, a woman manages to give birth to her child, who turns out to be Snow White, er, The One. To protect her, the mother sacrifices her child, sending it in a small boat on the river where it is found by Willow’s children. Willow is a Hobbit, er, Nelwyn; a farmer, happily married, and not seeking a change in his life. The baby, though, upends everything, especially as the Queen’s hounds come hunting. Willow and the baby, Elora Danan, flee, encountering Madmartigan (Val Kilmer), who is a handsome Daikini; a disgraced knight who swings a mean sword. Following instructions, Willow will risk everything to safely deliver the child to the good king and queen of Castle Tir Asleen. Meantime, Madmartigan encounters and romances Bavmorda’s daughter, Sorsha (Joanne Whalley), getting his just reward. For the two hour and six minute running time, you pretty much know what’s going to happen, and you’re rooting for the heroes.
The screenplay, written by Bob Dolman (How to Eat Fried Worms), based on Lucas’ long-simmering concepts, is overly predictable and none of the characters manage to sparkle. Kilmer is too grim, Marsh too broad. Davis’ title character is earnest but flat, given little to work with. Even former Munchkin Billy Barty is overly broad as The High Aldwin, the magician who takes Willow on as an apprentice. He’s forgiven considering how awful the Brownies (Kevin Pollak and Rick Overton), the two French-accented companions, are. That said, Howard still shows the film’s potential in some lovely quiet moments between the characters. Saddled with a so-so story and inexperienced with the demands of special effects, these are few and far between, which just makes us yearn for more. Darker than your typical kids’ fantasy, this overall holds up on rewatching, which has explained its enduring commercial success. As recently as last month Kilmer tweeted there will be a sequel, but after all this time, it remains wishful dreaming.
Shot partly in New Zealand, it has lovely views and the SFX are fine for when they were crafted but clearly budgetary constraints kept some of the more exciting set pieces from completion, saving them for use in the Marvel adaptation or novelization (speaking of which, go find the Chris Claremont-penned of tie-in sequel novels). James Horner delivers a familiar and lackluster score, that doesn’t help the overall feel of being a retread.
The new transfer is superior to the 2001 DVD release. Lucas and company personally oversaw the work so the print is clean and the colors are well balanced. The THX soundtrack is equally glorious and makes for an improved viewing experience.
The special features have chosen to skip the Davis commentary from the previous release but does offer up the other ones, including Willow: The Making of an Adventure (23:29), a 1988 documentary; From Morf To Morphing (17:24), with visual effects supervisor Dennis Muren; and, Willow: An Unlikely Hero – Personal Video Diary of Warwick Davis (10:53), with some interesting on-set videos he shot during production.
New to the disc is Willow: Deleted Scenes with Ron Howard (12:32) includes the completely dropped subplot with Sorsha’s father, some of Willow performing magic tricks, and a “fish boy” scene that ILM couldn’t quite get right. There is also a brief one minute-plus montage of the film’s lush Matte Paintings.
I’d agree with much of your assessment, but Val Kilmer totally saves this movie for me. I actually love his character and the way he plays it here.
…And now I feel the need to watch it again. Maybe I’ll have to get this new edition.
I remember thinking “That’s not Harrison Ford, but it is Han Solo”, or words to that effect…